Vol 9, Num 20 :: 2010.11.05 — 2010.11.18
She says wake up, it’s no use pretending
I’ll keep stealing, breathing her
Birds are leaving over autumn’s ending
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open
Naked as we came
One will spread our
Ashes round the yard
From “Naked As We Came” by Iron & Wine
The other day, as my husband and I made our weekly commute on Hwy. 131 between our work life and our home life, I caught a glimpse of our fragility. A truck passed our little sedan and I thought, “What if the truck sideswiped us? What if the blank, corrugated side of that trailer is the last thing I see before everything fades to black?” The fuel-efficient car we so self-righteously nurse along would be reduced to junkyard filler, not to mention the small non-profit organizations we nurture — they’d be dissolved or they’d continue, either way without us, and life would go on. “Once you are dead, put your feet up, call it a day,” writes Thomas Lynch in The Undertaking, “…because the dead don’t care.”
I didn’t wish for such a tragedy, but glimpsing its possibility was timely. The air inside our car was heavy with concern, as it has been lately. What does the future hold for us? Are we just spinning our wheels, spending ten years of our lives on projects that will never become what we hope for? How are we defining “success” and is that definition functioning as a guide or a tyrant? Each night, we fall into bed utterly exhausted, aware of both the necessity of change in our busy lives and the privilege of existential crisis when so many in this world are imprisoned in survival mode. That we even have the space and the will to back up and ask these questions bespeaks a level of luxury.
Our dreams are big dreams — dreams for justice and imagination and hope in our local community and in our world, dreams for a Church that is the embodiment of sacrificial love in all areas of human culture. We pursue this vision in the faith that, through grace, someone’s life will be changed for the better by our service. And yet, we also have to acknowledge the reality of our limitations. The Book of Common Prayer translates Psalm 90 this way:
You sweep us away like a dream;
We fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green and flourishes;
In the evening it is dried up and withered. (v. 5-6)
Like most searches for direction, I arrive again at paradox: my life is infinitely valuable and ultimately insignificant. Grasping after either side of this equation leads to dark and isolated places, narcissism on the one side and nihilism on the other. Holding these opposing realities in tension, however, liberates us to do something, to take a step, without fear. The elevating ecstasy of being fully present to each moment is anchored by an awareness of death: whatever damage or good we may do during our short time, it comes to an end. Until that time, we are in possession of an endless, interactive, wonderful gift.
About her time at a friend’s idyllic family farm, Annie Dillard writes:
I knew what I was doing at Paw Paw: I was beginning the lifelong task of tuning my own gauges. I was there to brace myself for leaving. I was having my childhood. But I was haunting it, as well, practically reading it, and preventing it. How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend? Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live; I trapped and paralyzed myself, and dragged my friends down with me, so we couldn’t meet each other’s eyes, my own loud awareness damning us both. Too little noticing, though — I would risk much to avoid this —and I would miss the whole show. I would wake on my deathbed and say, What was that? (An American Childhood)
Even as a young girl, Dillard sensed something deeply satisfying in the ordinary activities of drawing water from the well or cooking pancakes over the fire, something much bigger than the act itself. And yet she also learned that it — whatever “it” was — was a gift not to be contained, but to be unwrapped over and over again if she cultivated the discipline of sight.
And what is there to see?
What is love
But the last day this calendar year
That we can sit outside with bare feet,
Feeling the windy war between seasons.
Summer, sputtering in its resistance,
Is no match for the fall,
Bending the tallest trees
And stripping them naked
Before the freeze that is to come.
There is a kind of terror in this force:
No mercy, and yet a mercy:
In the earth smell of leaves
That we recall smelling for the first time
A billion years ago;
In the slinking of a cat
Around the corner of a house
That recalls all cats everywhere, at all times;
In the graceful, urgent fall of a single yellow leaf
Onto the wet, black road
That circles back on remembering:
We are here, now.
The future in the present, eternity in a moment — “success” can only be seen in retrospect and the legacy we leave will not be managed by us. We might start practicing now by opening up the car windows and letting the chill whip our worries into the headlights of the oncoming traffic, dying to ourselves a bit more each day and rising to the needs of others.